Board Talk: How can trustees be sure they remain independent?

Caroline Slocock and Andy Turner discuss the dangers of yielding to influence

Board Talk
Board Talk

CS: Trustees have a critical role in ensuring the independence of their charity: if they get it wrong, there's a lot at stake. If a question mark hangs over this independence of purpose, voice or action, the charity will lose credibility and, very probably, financial support. When independence is lost, a charity stops working for its beneficiaries and its very existence must be called into question. Trustees should consider independence in every decision they make. Prevention is better than cure, and an annual health check of independence is a good idea - perhaps using the Barometer of Independence published by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector, or other tools.

AT: Being up front about your board - who they are, the skills they bring and the networks they are hooked into - can affirm your charity's independence and build trust and confidence. The food bank charity the Trussell Trust was recently accused of being partisan and written off in the press by a politician who referred directly to the chair's political allegiance. I'm a fan of the charity and it's evident from its board that it isn't politically biased. Access to that information, summarised on their website, would certainly have helped to counter these accusations.

CS: I think trustees also need to counter external challenges about bias by demonstrating that their mission is the only cause they are working for. Last year, for example, we heard from Kirsty Palmer of Volunteer Centre Kensington & Chelsea in London that its trustees decided to terminate a Work Programme contract because it prevented them from helping clients in a way they thought worked best, but they couldn't raise their concerns while under contract because of a gagging clause. That must have been tough, but it was the right thing to do.

AT: Many boards now include members from a linked organisation or a local authority officer. It's important to explain the board make-up and the conflicts of interest a trustee might face, while demonstrating their skill and capacity to make independent judgements. We can be proactive and introduce the trustees to stakeholders, explain to them how they are selected and what their suitability and skills are - this might help to mollify the anxieties of people worrying they might be excluded from a perceived 'top table'.

CS: The panel is concerned that some funders are demanding places on charity boards. For example, we have heard that local authorities sometimes want this. I have even heard of local authorities telling charities who they can or can't employ. There are safeguards against state interference in charities in Scotland that the panel would like to see applied in England and Wales.

Trustees need to ask themselves difficult questions before others do, and also ensure their organisation has the right culture. Independence should be demonstrated through transparency about board membership and the link between campaigning and charitable purpose, and through good two-way communication with beneficiaries. It should also be exercised by, for example, not signing gagging clauses and avoiding self-censorship. Independence should underpin all the decisions made by trustees, but the annual health check is also a good idea.

AT: While staff negotiate the front line, trustees play a key role as critical friend and adviser, passionate about achieving the charitable objectives. Trustees can help charities maintain their distinctiveness by showing evidence of decisions made in the interests of the charity. It would be a good idea to seek out independent advice when confronted with a particularly important matter or high-risk decision. Through annual reports, websites or social media, trustees have a vital opportunity to highlight their accountability, audit difficult decision-making and demonstrate their autonomy. For many charities, advocacy is a critical function that is in danger of being diluted. Trustees need to be on top of this, stay alert to the pressures and, where necessary, challenge the organisation to be bold and to speak out.

Caroline Slocock is secretary of the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector and director of the think tank Civil Exchange

Andy Turner is chairman of Greenbelt and a trustee of Social Action for Health and the Estates Church Network

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